Wind power helps U.S. cities go big on clean energy

With over 75 percent of the world’s energy use happening in cities, there‘s a significant opportunity for the U.S. to increase its share of clean power in urban centers across the country. A few trailblazing cities are showing us just how to do it, in many cases by choosing wind power.

Looking to reduce their carbon pollution while locking in low electricity prices, many cities have decided to “go big” on clean power, committing to use 100 percent renewable energy. Today, four U.S. cities already run on 100 percent renewables, while 12 others have pledged to join them over the next 10 to 20 years.

Four U.S. cities are now running on 100 percent clean energy – with three signing long term contracts for wind power

Four U.S. cities – Greensburg, Kan., Burlington, Vt, Aspen, Colo., and Columbia, Md.– have already met their 100 percent renewable commitments. All four utilize wind power to some extent, with three signing power purchase agreements (PPA) for the wind energy output from specific wind farms. These contracts provide additionality, and that’s important. Besides locking in low electricity prices with clean energy, these long term contracts helping to create a market for more renewable energy.

Greensburg, Kan.

After a major tornado destroyed much of this small 785-person town in 2007, the community decided to rebuild using sustainable principles. Greensburg is now powered almost exclusively with wind energy purchased by the town’s municipal utility. The 12.5 megawatt (MW) Greensburg Wind Farm actually generates more energy than the town needs, and the renewable energy credits (RECs) from the excess energy produced are sold to companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Clif Bar.

Wind is not only a source of energy for Greensburg, it’s a part of the culture. Wind turbines can be found on the roofs of the town’s art center, hotel, hospital, and school. As Mayor Bob Dixon says, “the wind that destroyed Greensburg is also the wind that would make us energy sustainable.”

Burlington, Vt.

Despite the Vermont city’s progressive, pro-environment population, it was actually economics that convinced Burlington’s leaders to make the transition to 100 percent clean energy.

Skiing and maple syrup production are the city’s two most important industries, and both are threatened by a warming climate. The city became 100 percent renewable in 2014, and its municipal utility now gets about half its energy from biomass, one-third from hydro, and one-quarter from wind contracts.

Transitioning to all renewables has been a smart financial decision for the city: Burlington will save $20 million over 20 years by moving away from fossil fuels, and customer electricity rates haven’t increased.

Aspen, Colo.

Aspen, like other mountain towns, is seeing the impacts of climate change before other parts of the country. To protect its tourism industry, Aspen decided to go 100 percent renewable, achieving its goal in 2015. Its municipal utility signed a contract with the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, agreeing to purchase wind power from a Nebraska wind farm to supply 53 percent of the municipal utility’s electricity demand.

Interestingly, this wind contract is designed to be flexible for the city, and Aspen only has to pay for the amount of wind power necessary to reach 100 percent every month. Wind energy now supplies more than half of Aspen’s electricity, with most of the rest coming from nearby hydropower facilities.

A dozen other cities – with more announcing every month – have committed to achieving 100 percent clean energy

Besides the four cities that have already achieved 100 percent renewable energy use, a dozen more have made commitments to do the same, with more cities announcing their intention to go big on clean energy seemingly every month. These municipalities vary in size from under 100,000 people to over 1.3 million. Taken together, the cities that have committed to going 100 percent renewable represent approximately four million Americans. Many are already pursuing wind PPAs, while others are still examining their options. For example:

  • East Hampton, N.Y. may get much of its energy from a major wind farm currently under development off the coast of Long Island, while also streamlining the permitting process for wind projects on commercial properties.
  • Georgetown, Texas signed a 20-year PPA with EDF Renewables in 2014 for 144 MW from the Spinning Spur 3 wind farm in West Texas. The cost of this wind energy came in lower than fossil fuel prices and was particularly attractive for its drought resistance. The PPA will take effect in 2017.
  • Salt Lake City, Utah entered into a franchise agreement with its utility, Rocky Mountain Power, to power the city without energy from its coal-fired plants. Rocky Mountain has invested $1 billion in wind farms in the past decade and the city is completing a feasibility study to determine their ability to sign future contracts for wind power.

Dozens of additional cities have expanded their use of clean energy, purchasing wind power to do it

On top of the 16 cities that are either operating on 100 percent renewables or are on their way to doing so, many more have begun to ramp up their clean energy use, including wind power. In the past decade, there have been over 100 wind PPAs signed by municipal utilities totaling nearly 6.4 gigawatts (GW) of wind energy, enough to power millions of typical American homes.

The trend is clear: across the country, in small towns and big cities, Americans are turning to wind energy to cut their carbon pollution and lock in low electricity prices. With the cost of wind energy falling 66 percent in six years, the trend of cities buying more wind energy at record-low prices is likely to continue.